Andre and Ilse van Heerden became the spirited owners of Summerfields Estate in 2002. After 20 years of blissful and busy city living – of 90s parties, married life, urban-triathlons, first homes, various business ventures, kids, high schools and break-away camping trips - they decided to pack up their beloved home in Parktown North and move to the countryside. Ilse, a landscaper by profession, needed a bigger, grander canvas upon which to dream up a next paradise and Andre’s aviation heart grew increasingly restless in search of a new escapade. The Lowveld was an obvious and easy choice to make - in the shadow of the escarpment, with its majestic cascades of greenery, rock-pools and cool forests, lay the nostalgia of many a summer holiday.
Inexperience could not nearly overshadow their enthusiasm as Ilse, Andre, family and an entourage of dogs arrived at their new home. What they envisioned on the slopes of Summerfields was no small undertaking; roads had to be built, orchards established, natural forest rehabilitated. Within a space of 2 years Ilse and Andre opened a restaurant on the estate, designed and realized a luxury forest lodge and set up a natural spa - all connected by wooden walkways that wind their way through verdant vegetation beneath a calming canopy of sub-tropical trees. With the removal of alien species and the rehabilitation of natural stretches of vegetation, indigenous orchids started blooming once again and buck sightings increased. With every passing season, Summerfields grew increasingly beautiful.
Wild animals weren’t the only ones to multiply and thrive on the estate in these prolific times. Ilse and Andre’s insatiable capacity to adopt and adore animals ensured that their domestic clan grew at a steady pace as well. Indeed it is a rare sight to see either one of them on the estate without a healthy battalion of hounds sniffing, hunting or strutting around them. While each of their 8 dogs have, or have had, their own clever and entertaining idiosyncrasies, there is one in particular whose royal airs, cheeky transgressions and discerning expressions have made him somewhat of an estate mascot and won him the fitting title of Duke of Summerfields.
Duke the Viszla joined the Summerfields tribe in September 2017 - round about the same time that the litchi-gin-idea started taking flight in the minds of Ilse and Andre, and the all-consuming experimental phase took off. Throughout every trial and error, every trip to the distillery, long, slow hours of waiting, Duke’s expectant demeanour and energy kept spirits high, while his questioning frowns translated into “just one more attempt at a slightly varied recipe” and eventually the prefect one.
Duke Gin was started in 2017 in an attempt to save the sunny litchi orchards of Summerfields estate. A tricky and risky fruit to export, the economic viability of litchi farming was on a rapid decline, and the decision to replace them with macadamia trees had all but been made. It was at this point when Andre's entrepreneurial spirit, and ability to see possibilities where most see none, took flight. As is often the case with visionaries, the transition from initial idea to fully-fledged obsession happened virtually overnight. After a gin course in Johannesburg, Andre was hooked on mastering the distilling process and entered a whole new world of copper stills, litchi fermentation and juniper berries. He has absolutely no desire to look back.
Today Andre and Ilse host guests in their beautifully styled gin foundry where they share, with much humour, entertaining stories about the history of the farm, the many farming activities (including macadamia, rose and organic vegetable farming), and most importantly, they share about the gin making process. The Lowveld’s hot, humid summers with thunderous rainstorms create the ideal climate needed to produce the sweet floral-like flavours characteristic to the litchi fruit. It is Duke’s farm-to-bottle story and exotically fragrant flare that’s been winning hearts, and most guests who taste Duke gin, leave the estate with a bottle in hand.
How Duke Original is Created – from Farm to Bottle
Duke Gin is truly crafted. And regal alongside its namesake, Duke the Viszla, who roams the Summerfields Estate. It takes patience and time, nothing is rushed.
Duke Gin starts with the annual litchi harvest, 100 tons of fruit which is brought from the orchards in late December. The orchards are carefully cultivated all year – pruned in autumn, allowing the cold of winter to activate the flowering buds, feritilised through spring and then waiting for the fruit to ripen, to grow in size and sugar content.
The fruit is sized and graded, and anything with a sunburn spot, a slight tear or stingmark is earmarked for the distillery. The fruit is carefully skinned and pipped, then juiced. More than half is discarded as pulp (for composting), the sweet juice collected into fermentation tanks. The pH is meticulously monitored, and champagne yeast added to start the fermentation process.
After a week to ten days the yeast turns the sugar into alcohol and Co2. The first distillation run, known as ‘stripping distillation’ is done in a traditional 200l Albemic still over an open flame. The litchi wine is turned into a low volume alcohol.
The second distillation takes place in a fractional still in six stages. Care needs to be taken to remove the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’, and to ensure that the litchi flavour is not lost.
The third distillation adds our precious botanicals – juniper berries, rose geranium and ginger from the farm, orris and angelica to add stability.
The batch is aged in stainless steel for at least three months before being bottled – also on the Estate. From a 100t harvest the yield is no more than 5,000 l of gin.
The nose gets floral notes of rose and litchi. The taste is bold - sweetness of fruit balanced with the bitterness of ground and the dry aftertaste of juniper. Truly unique, best enjoyed with vanilla, sage and a good tonic. Best enjoyed with lemon, ice and basil.
In celebration of Duke’s overwhelmingly positive reception, Summerfields recently added a gin bar with a view to their array of breath-taking locations. True to the Summerfields aesthetic, the wooden bar blends harmoniously with its natural surroundings – one becomes one with the water beneath the deck, the unseen busyness in the trees and the sometimes electric sky. In the evenings, the sweet smell of potato-bush lingers here and there and the horizon grows gold, then amber, until it’s burning red. If Duke Gin of Summerfields doesn’t win you over, the surroundings certainly will.
The Summerfields Gin Bar serves a range of cocktails:
Duke Gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup, champagne, lemon peel garnish
Eden Special Fizz
Duke Gin, cherry liqueur, champagne, lemon
Raspberry Gin Bellini
Gin, lemon juice, Prosecco, raspberries
Duke Gin, vermouth, Campari, orange
Duke Gin, vermouth, garnishes (stirred, not shaken)
Duke Gin, tonic water, garnishes
And our own Summerfields Farm Cocktail
Duke Gin, granadilla cordial, nartjie, basil, tonic